‘Oppenheimer’ portrays the ‘father of the atomic bomb,’ but how accurate is it?

The Christopher Nolan film tackles the theoretical physicist’s guilt following the success of the Manhattan Project, but some details are left out.

By Alexandra HartJuly 20, 2023 1:49 pm, , ,

Seems like its been quite some time since there’s been buzz around summer blockbusters that’s matched that of “Barbenheimer.” For the uninitiated, that’s the portmanteau of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” two much-hyped movies to be released on Friday with starkly different tones. 

“Oppenheimer” tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” and the development of a weapon that changed the course of history.

But just how faithful of a retelling is director Christopher Nolan’s latest film? Journalist Greg Mitchell, author of “The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb,” and more recently, a Substack about Robert Oppenheimer, joined Texas Standard to offer his insight. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I want to ask you about your background. You’re also the author of a Substack about Robert Oppenheimer – “father of the atomic bomb,” as he’s often referred to. What’s behind your personal interest in the atomic era and how Hollywood has depicted it?

The real J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is portrayed by Cillian Murphy in the film. Public domain photo

Greg Mitchell: Well, I’ve been writing about it for 40 years now. Three books. I recently directed a documentary film. But I like to say it goes back to what became and remained my favorite movie of all time, which was “Dr. Strangelove” in the early 1960s.

I was, you know, a younger person and one of the many who were caught up in the nuclear terror of the time. And for some reason, “Dr. Strangelove” really clicked with me, and I sort of remained interested in the bomb for forever, really.

The story that you explore in “The Beginning or the End,” the first movie about the atomic bomb if the we’re talking about 1947 docudrama of the same name… Could you say a little bit more about that film for those who aren’t familiar with it and the controversy that surrounded it? 

Yeah, it was launched by MGM shortly after Hiroshima, and it was inspired by the atomic scientists who were warning about the future of nuclear weapons and not building bigger and more of them.

After it got to MGM and they did the first scripts, suddenly the Pentagon under Gen. Groves, who you’ll see in the “Oppenheimer” movie, and President Truman, who you’ll also see, their intervention turned the film – which was supposed to be kind of a warning to the world – really into pro-bomb propaganda.

Oppenheimer himself kind of played a disgraceful role in that he finally caved and allowed himself to be depicted and serve as narrator in this drama, even though he knew it was very badly written and had contained many falsehoods.

We should point out, so folks aren’t confused, the new “Oppenheimer” movie is based on a different book, a biography of Oppenheimer called “American Prometheus,” I believe. I understand you’ve had a chance to see the new “Oppenheimer” film. What did it seem to get right and get wrong?

Well, it gets a lot, right. I’d say it’s tremendously accurate. You know, it is based on the book by two friends of mine. And unlike, let’s say, Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” it is, I would say, quite accurate and doesn’t deal in conspiracy theories or anything like that.

I guess my concern with it somewhat is in the omissions. It does leave out a lot in terms of what actually happened after we use the bomb.

Could you give us an example of something it leaves out that you feel is critical?

Well, there’s quite a few things in terms of it sort of ignores the radiation issue, sort of the new revolutionary aspect of these bombs. It never does show any images of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We see Oppenheimer very briefly, briefly watching some footage, but we don’t see the footage.

And I think, you know, one of the biggest lacks in the movie is that you do see Oppenheimer here in expressing regrets, but you never quite understand why, because the decision to use the bomb is not really questioned.

I was just going to say, isn’t that sort of the crux of the enigma of Oppenheimer? And isn’t that part of what makes him such a fascinating and – in some ways, I think – warning for the future? You know, he was so involved with this scientific project and after the fact, something that he thought might lead sensible-minded folks away from war, he realizes quite the opposite has happened: he set right into motion a series of events that would ultimately culminate in the Cold War and nuclear fears. I do think that that seems to be sort of at the center of this long-running conversation that seems to be rekindled by the interest in this movie, no?

Well, I hope so. It does end with a very powerful, profound message about the future and current dangers and threats. I have to say, it’s a hundred times better than “The Beginning of the End,” which I write about in my book.

But it does have a powerful message on the future and Oppenheimer’s regrets – as you say, he was a very conflicted, confused, and they show that in the movie that he took great pride in really helping to make the bomb, but not so much pride in what was done with it afterwards. So I think it does leave the audience with questions on how to deal with what Oppenheimer’s legacy really is.

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